“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” ~ Albert Einstein
“The light of memory, or rather the light that memory lends to things, is the palest light of all. I am not quite sure whether I am dreaming or remembering, whether I have lived my life or dreamed it. Just as dreams do, memory makes me profoundly aware of the unreality, the evanescence of the world, a fleeting image in the moving water.” – Eugene Ionesco
Dreams are purported to be not real. They are thought to be constructions of our nervous system that occur during an altered state of consciousness termed sleep. But, they appear and feel very real. While the dream is in progress we experience it as completely real. Things happen mostly in real time. We visualize people, places, and things in great detail and hear sounds and voices. We even feel emotions. What’s different about a dream in comparison to what we call reality?
In actuality, much of what we experience during so called “reality” is not real, but a construction produced by our nervous systems. We experience color in our visual world, but in fact there is nothing in the physical world that has color. Our eyes take in different wavelengths of light, electromagnetic radiation with different distances between peaks. That is all. There is nothing colored here. But our eyes have three different receptors that respond to different ranges of wavelengths. Our brain then interprets the activity of these receptors as different colors. In fact it is a complete illusion. What we think we see and experience is in fact not there.
Our everyday thoughts, day dreams, and fantasies we recognize as not a reflection of reality. But nevertheless they constitute a constructed experience. Our brain is completely capable of constructing experiences that are similar to those that we label as “reality.” Could it be that this labelled “reality” is in fact just another constructed experience?
The great physiologist and philosopher, Johannes Müller, pointed out that we are not directly aware of the natural world, but rather what we are aware of is the state of our nervous system. In other words, our awareness is simply of what is going on in our nervous system. It is constructed by brain processes. Is this any more real than the dream?
It is clear that we can make up experiences and perceive them vividly. The great question then becomes how much is “real” and how much and which ones are mental constructs. This question has had a range of answers from the materialist who suggests that there is objective reality to the Zen master who suggests that there is no reality other than pure being.
If all that we are aware of is the state of our nervous system is that, at least, an objective reality? Dreams are produced by internal brain activity that lacks an external referent. These are apparently very “real’ to the dreamer, but most would agree that they are not “real.” Drugs can produce very “real” experiences but most agree that they are not “real.” But are these experiences not just a construct of altered brain activity produced by sleep systems or altered chemistry, respectively? If our sleep systems or altered brain chemistry can produce an untrue “reality” what does this imply about the “reality” produced by our usual brain chemistry? Does it not imply that the nervous system is at best an unstable platform for the expression of “reality” or that our awareness itself does not present to us the “real?”
The only thing that we conclusively know to be real is our personal awareness of the immediate moment. Everything else is just a memory or a fantasy. That experienced moment is ever changing, mutating, arising and falling away. It cannot be held onto. So, the only thing that we know to be real is ephemeral, a puff of smoke blown in the wind. But, is this phantasm real or is it created in our awareness? Is it a reflection of an objective reality or a compelling hallucination? Does it have substance beyond experience?
We have arrived at the point of concluding that the only “reality” that we can know to be real is an ephemeral experience of a present moment and that even this is perhaps only a continuing experience of the ever changing state of our nervous system that we know is not an accurate depiction of any external physical state of environmental energies. To be sure, this is a very tenuous grasp at something “real.”
Doesn’t it make more sense to admit that awareness is the only “reality?” What enters awareness is simply what we experience regardless of its origin. Does it really matter if it is reflective of an external “reality” or simply all made up? It is simply our “reality” and it may not need to be anything more. Seeing it this way, the question becomes irrelevant.
“I’m more convinced each day of the complete unreality of the material world and the supreme vitality of the invisible world of spirit.”- Paul Russo
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies